A Hindu's Religious Experience

India's war on terrorism has become a war of words, with the term "Hindu terror" sparking a growing debate. India's Central Bureau of Investigation is investigating 10 cases of attacks that it believes have ties to fundamentalist Hindu militants. Raja Ratnam is a former Director of Australia's Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. A Hindu and Sri Lankan immigrant, Ratnam gives a personal account of his Hinduism.

As children, we were required to pray before eating our dinner. That was between 8 and 9 pm. Because one had to be clean in body (and presumably in mind) to offer prayers, we bathed first. In any event, to us, cleanliness is next to godliness. We prayed one at a time, because the prayer area was a curtained corner of a small room.

In the corner, there were pictures of our chosen gods on the wall, and the usual paraphernalia of oil lamp, etc. on a small table.

Although followers of the god Shiva, my family prayed to the goddess Saraswathi for success in our studies and in acquiring musical skills, to the goddess Lakshmi for material success and accumulating wealth, and to the elephant god Pilleyar (or Ganesh) for anything and everything else. We went to the Pilleyar temple as a family on auspicious days. As the designated chariot for the family's future, I was sent every Friday, the day of a vegetarian diet.

In the temple, I might break the occasional coconut (I never understood why); perambulate the small temple, paying homage to the deities set in the wall niches; and pray to the black- painted concrete image of Ganesh while the dark-skinned priest we referred to as a Brahmin carried out his puja, or daily worship.

I would lose myself in the priest's chanting, which was accompanied by the tinkling of his bell and the loud clanging of the big bell near the entrance. I would then receive in my cupped hands about a half teaspoonful of the milk used to wash Ganesh. After sipping most of the milk, I would sprinkle the remaining few drops over my head. I presume that it was a form of blessing. A lifetime later in Bali, I underwent a similar experience. The Balinese Hindu priests, even after more than a thousand years, followed the same ritual.

In our prayers we, as Hindus, know that we were addressing the one and only god, the creator of the universe and all in it, and that Ganesh and the other gods are but manifestations of God. We hope, through our prayers, that God will intervene in our lives as needed, even as we accept that Destiny determines our birth, life and death. I remember being taught early in life that all nature is cyclical; that the universe is re-created periodically (ignoring how each ending might take place); that, through the process of reincarnation, my soul would be re-born again and again until it had learnt what it had to learn. Thus the mystery of God; of mankind's universal search for God; of the nature and workings of Destiny; and of knowing what it is we have to learn, was left for (possibly) future learning.

The expression of our faith was essentially ritualistic, with some cultural traditions inherited from our forebears in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) included. Our priests do not tell us how to behave, do not control us, do not keep us away from people of other faiths, and do not seek conversion of others. Their job is to facilitate, through their ceremonies, our attempts to reach out to God. This is so even now in my country of birth, Malaysia.

As relevant background, I acknowledge that, in the British colonial territory in which I reincarnated, we were only one of many immigrant communities. Our origins ranged from all parts of India, through Southeast Asia, to south China. In the homeland of tolerant Muslim Malays, we all co-existed peacefully and tolerantly. While the immigrant is a hardy specimen of man, and his genes are carried into the future with strength, his life in a foreign land is one of grave insecurity. Shared insecurity may therefore be a factor in each community not being fussed about the way the others prayed (and to whom or what), ate, dressed, and celebrated their festivals.

I detected no pretence to religious or cultural superiority, even by the Asian Christians (whose white counterparts elsewhere are always busy seeking converts). This is so even today.

The need for some Christians to convert or to attack those of other faiths seems incredibly silly to me. Against the assertion that Christ had claimed thus – 'Only through me shall ye know God,' Krishna is reported to have said 'Whatever god to whom you pray, it is I who answer' (or words to that effect). This is an argument about the road to God. What about the destination? Surely, admission to the Celestial Abode of the Heavenly Father is not determined by the color of the garments worn by one's priesthood. While cemeteries in my adopted nation, Australia, separate the dead according to religious sect, would it not be ridiculous to expect separation in Heaven (or elsewhere) according to learned but blind prejudice?

Were one to compare the many religions which abound, we find that they all offer ritual as a basic ingredient; while variable, their objective is the same – to reach God. The second ingredient they share is their ethical code – to treat one's fellow believers as equals under their god. The third ingredient is an attempted explanation of the links between the followers and their god. This is where a power-seeking authoritarianism, allied to divisive dogma, can lead to intolerance, discrimination and, often, war.

Were one to compare the teaching of the great founders of the major religions, when one strips away the dogma of a self-proclaimed superiority-through-difference, what is left are two core teachings: there is a Creator God of all there is, and we are His/Her creations; we are therefore and thereby bonded one to the other. To the Hindu, God is also within each of His/Her creations; that is, God is immanent while transcendent.

Since Hinduism, the original 'forest' religion, and all its derivative sister religions do not offer an authoritative Good Book (as do each of the three inter-linked 'desert' religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam), a great variety of perceptions (and some dogmatic debates) have been offered over many centuries by great Hindu thinkers. A ubiquitous need to dissect, re-analyze, and re-define ancient belief is offset only by the invariant prejudices of those adepts of the faith caught up in the memories of past religious conflicts.

Add power politics to such memories, and the journey to God is effectively side-tracked. To what end? Ego satisfaction? Blind prejudice?

When my rowing boat to a good career was scuppered for reasons I do not yet understand (although it had been foretold by a yogi even before I set out on my voyage), I lost my faith. When I began to study society, especially the very early societies, I found that a religious instinct is universal and seemingly innate. A full belly and some public welfare may bury such an attribute in modern times, except when a major personal disaster occurs.

Examining the core teaching of the great religious leaders brought me back to the boyhood stance inculcated by my parents of being a freethinker; that is, that the major religions, at their core, are equal in their potential. Yet, I was not fully satisfied that I had found an adequate explanation of mankind's relationships with the Cosmos and beyond.

However, it was when I read some of the Upanishads, which seem to me to be the highest metaphysics of Hinduism, that I found a satisfying path to understanding the reality of existence, or 'Reality' (as said in the Upanishads). Neither science nor the other religions offer me a compelling alternative.

Having left the rituals and the priests, but retaining my interactive and highly contributory relationships with my fellow men (irrespective of their faiths or lack thereof), I now seek God directly. As a loner, I am not attracted to seeking a guru for guidance. As an 'adventurous' immigrant Seeker, I need to find my own way through the Cosmos (with hopefully more guidance than hitherto from the spirit world).

I am attracted by the idea and the practice of seeking to realise this Upanishadic 'Reality' through meditation. I accept that this ultimate experience will be beyond words, and intimately personal. I guess that it will be granted to me when I am ready to receive it. Were I to be successful, will I then return to that Ocean of Consciousness from which we are all said to have arisen?

Raja Ratnam, author of The Dance of Destiny, is a former Director in Australia's Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. Here he gives a personal account of Hinduism amongst the growing concern of extremism.